In Russell Square

Harry Stopes

There’s a scene in Ewan MacColl’s autobiography in which his father, boozy after a weekend trip to Heaton Park, begins singing on the tram back to Salford:

soon the entire car-load of passengers is listening. I am overcome with embarrassment and try to pretend I am not with them. The one-armed man who appears to have an insatiable appetite for the songs of Robert Burns applauds loudly after each rendition and then suggests another title... My father is in full flight now and the entire tram is spellbound by his performance. Only I am not amused. Indeed I am mortified with shame and sit there wishing that I had the magical power to make my father disappear into thin air.

Last October MacColl's family released Joy of Living, a collection of 21 of his songs performed by other singers. The same month Sony brought out Anthologia, a mixture of original studio tracks and live recordings by the poet John Cooper Clarke. Both were born in Salford on 25 January (MacColl in 1915, Clarke in 1949). Clarke is still around; MacColl died in 1989. Every year on his birthday a few people gather at the memorial tree planted for him in Russell Square in London.

Clarke recorded three studio albums, produced by Martin Hannett, on which his poems are accompanied by drums, bass and keyboard. It was Hannett who took the albums beyond the recitation Clarke does on stage: in some cases he composed the accompaniment before there were any words. ‘Am I OK? Not really, no. I seem to stop and start. Anything I can do, let me know. I think I'll sleepwalk, out of my heart.’

MacColl sang in the voices of poachers, weavers, bakers transported to Australia for petty theft. He channelled other people’s voices in other ways, too. In the Radio Ballads, MacColl, Peggy Seeger, Charles Parker and others composed a series of hour-long programmes that told the stories of fishermen, road workers, steam train drivers, travellers, boxers and others, using a mixture of song, sounds and voices. Sometimes the sounds of the work accompany the music: in a song about road engineers’ paperwork, time is kept by the tapping of a typewriter; one about a train fireman is punctuated by the heavy crunch of a shovel into a pile of coal.

MacColl and Clarke share a political heritage. Clarke's father was an engineer and a member of the Communist Party. ‘I got the Marxist-Leninist view at home and the Catholic view at school,’ he once said. His father might well have known Edmund and Ruth Frow, who founded the Working Class Movement Library, and Benny Rothman, one of the organisers of the mass tresspass on Kinder Scout (the highest point in the Peak District) in 1932, after which MacColl wrote the Manchester Rambler (‘No man has the right to own mountains/Any more than the deep ocean bed’).

We marked the birthday with drinks by the tree. Mac, a fixture at the Tuesday folk club in Cecil Sharp House in Camden, had brought wine, whisky and beer in a holdall. Someone sang Rod Shearman’s ‘London River’ while the buses rolled past.


  • 30 January 2016 at 2:23am
    John-Albert says:
    Ewan MacColl's music enlivened and helped to make serious my childhood. I wish that I lived in England and could be one of the few around the tree. Thanks LRB, for your occasional welcome pieces ..